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Nancy and Ronald Reagan on the Cyclone pinball machine.
Nancy and Ronald Reagan on the Cyclone pinball machine.

Pinball Hall of Fame

Field review by the editors.

Las Vegas, Nevada

Tim Arnold endures. He has spent years working to make the Pinball Hall of Fame a success in Las Vegas. All of the profits -- millions of dollars, he told us -- have gone to local service organizations. "The stuff still fascinates me," he said of the machines. "The thing I don't like is the public. They're turning into monsters."

Well, maybe not the entire public. "What I do all day, every day, is argue with parents," he said. "Kids today are feral. I can't get anything done."

5,000 points!
5,000 points!

(Tim had to interrupt our conversation several times to ask parents to please stop their kids from running around. "This place is concrete, metal, glass. You're going to get hurt.")

It isn't as if people aren't warned. The Pinball Hall of Fame has two big RULES signs at its entrance, listing several intolerable transgressions: yelling, running, alcohol, smoking, physically abusing the machines. All of them are forbidden, Tim said, so that everyone can enjoy what must be the largest operating pinball arcade on earth.

Tim made his money in the 1980s as the owner of a video and pinball empire in Michigan. Rather than junk the old machines when new ones arrived, he squirreled them away, then hauled them to Las Vegas when he retired (In the dry climate he stored many of them on his tennis court). Tim started the Las Vegas Pinball Collectors Club and soon realized that they were in a unique position to open the world's greatest arcade, too labor-intensive to ever succeed as a business, but big enough to pay the bills and donate the profits to charity. "It overwhelms me on a daily basis," Tim said of the arcade, "but the ends justify the means."

Pinball Hall of Fame billboard rivals the glitz of the nearby Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas sign.
Pinball Hall of Fame billboard rivals the glitz of the nearby Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas sign.

The idea, of course, is madness. The machines, hundreds of them, delicate assemblages of dead technology, some dating to the 1930s, are not off-limits behind velvet ropes; they're out on the floor, being played seven days a week by a pitiless public. "It's not normal," Tim conceded.

Women of pinball: 1940s Robin Hood in a bikini, and Charlie's Angels.
Women of pinball: 1940s Robin Hood in a bikini, and Charlie's Angels.

There are arcade games that you may remember at the Pinball Hall of Fame -- from Frogger to KISS pinball to Dance Dance Revolution -- and there are Skee-Ball and Mold-A-Rama machines and an Air Hockey table and a photo booth. But the joy of the attraction is in its obscure vintage machines; games that you'd never heard of, much less imagined that you'd ever have a chance to play.

The 1960s Centigrade 37 machine has a biological sci-fi theme.
The 1960s Centigrade 37 machine has a biological sci-fi theme.

Crane, for example, is a 1956 machine that uses a toy steam shovel to lift dried beans into a hopper ("How many tons can you load?"). We made the mistake of labeling it "boring;" Tim bristled at that. "It's quite challenging," he said. Thing is a 1951 pinball machine based on a bawdy novelty record. Bygone video arcade games include Paperboy (1984), Burgertime (1982), and Wacko (1983), which is built into an off-kilter cabinet. The 1979 Computerized Sex Tester includes custom results for "Dudes" (such as "Needs Help" and "Mama's Boy") and "Chicks" ("Frigid," "Hot Pants"). The 1944 Amazing Educational Telequiz projects 16mm film clips onto a simulated tv screen. "I have three of the four that are known to exist," said Tim of the machine. "It was state-of-the-art back then."

Reaction time testing on Whac A Mole.
Reaction time testing on Whac A Mole.

Some of the older pinball machines have themes that range from the oddball Subway (1966) to the short-lived Roller Disco (1979). Many of them have taped-on index cards with descriptive notes hand-written by Tim. Wild Wheels (1966), for example: "Guys and babes on zippy little Hondas!" MiniZag (1968): "What a strange machine!" Atlantis (1975): "What a boffo effort!" When we asked Tim why he punctuated all of his sentences with exclamation marks, he answered, "I read too many comic books."

Las Vegas is the entertainment machine capital of the world, but Tim feels that gambling games make "zombies" out of people, while the machines at the Pinball Hall of Fame make people happy. "These games are tactile," Tim said. They don't run on swipe cards or tokens, but on old-fashioned quarters, dispensed from change machines that were thrown out by the casinos.

"You didn't touch a thumbprint to a pad back in the day," Tim said. "You got some change from a machine, dropped your quarters, and then had to go crawling all over the floor to pick them up. It's part of the whole experience."

You can see the evolution of clowns, from friendly (1950s) to terrifying (1990s), in pinball art.
You can see the evolution of clowns, from friendly (1950s) to terrifying (1990s), in pinball art.

Tim guesstimated that 15 percent of the hundreds of machines in the Pinball Hall of Fame are down for repair at any given time, and that another 1,000 are still off-site awaiting refurbishment. "Dead games are sitting everywhere," he said. "The trick is to get them running. There are no parts. There are no people who remember how to fix them."

So if you see a gray-haired guy at the Pinball Hall of Fame buried in the guts of a machine, up to his elbows in switches and relays, it's probably Tim. Tell him thank you, obey the rules, and then leave him alone. He has work to do. "I'm here seven days a week," Tim said. "If you want a job where you get days off and a paid vacation, work for the post office."

Also see: Marvin's Marvelous Mechanical Museum | American Classic Arcade Museum

Pinball Hall of Fame

4925 S. Las Vegas Blvd, Las Vegas, NV
On the east side of S. Las Vegas Blvd, at the south end of The Strip, near the "Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas" sign and just south of the Mandalay Bay casino.
Su-Th 10-9, F-Sa 10-10 (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
Save to My Sights

Nearby Offbeat Places

Pink ElephantPink Elephant, Las Vegas, NV - < 1 mi.
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In the region:
OctoSteam: Octopus Time Machine, Las Vegas, NV - 5 mi.

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